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Reading Dante's Comedy: Text & Context - ENG00089M

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  • Department: English and Related Literature
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Kenneth Clarke
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2023-24

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Semester 2 2023-24

Module aims

"I expect your father has been reading Dante": thus, the memorable reply from Cecil Vyse in E. M. Forsters A Room with a View, upon hearing George Emerson repeat his fathers assertion that there is only one perfect view - the view of the sky straight over our heads, and that all these views on earth are but bungled copies of it. Cecil Vyse assumes that a knowledge of Dante is simply part of the cultural baggage of any literate gentleman. Very few authors from the medieval period have so pervasively influenced writing in so many European languages across successive centuries right down to the present day. Arguably, a knowledge of the work of Dante remains a vital part of the cultural baggage of any literate, critical reader. Medievalists find in the poem a philosophical, theological, political and literary synthesis of much that is crucial in their period, but Renaissance scholars, Romanticists, Victorianists and modernists all find many concerns of their respective periods worked out in response to the poem.

The Comedy can, however, be a daunting poem, and risks being cited more often than it is read. This module will introduce readers to this masterpiece of European literature. The poem will be read in English translation, assuming no prior knowledge of Italian.

The aim of the module is to introduce students to Dantes Comedy, setting the poem in its cultural and literary context; students will be introduced to the poems structure and moral architecture, and the module will proceed with close readings of some of its most famous canti, such as (amongst others) Inf. 5 (Paolo and Francesca), Inf. 10 (Farinata and Cavalcanti), Inf. 26 (Ulysses), and Par. 11 (St Francis of Assisi).

Module aims include:

  • To give students the opportunity to develop a sound understanding of Dantes Comedy
  • To give students a knowledge of major trends in modern Dante scholarship
  • To enable students to develop their skills in close-reading

Module learning outcomes

Students will be able to;

  • undertake a research-led essay project addressing the aims of the module
  • undertake with confidence a close-reading of relevant parts of the Comedy
  • speak and write with confidence on a variety of aspects of Dante, his context and his great poem.

Academic and graduate skills

  • Students will demonstrate advanced skills of writing appropriate to a postgraduate degree
  • Gain a set of skills which will complement the core-courses for a variety of MA programmes offered by the Department of English and Related Literature


Task Length % of module mark
4500 word essay
N/A 100

Special assessment rules



Task Length % of module mark
4500 word essay
N/A 100

Module feedback

You will receive feedback on all assessed work within the University deadline, and will often receive it more quickly. The purpose of feedback is to inform your future work; it is designed to help you to improve your work, and the Department also offers you help in learning from your feedback. If you do not understand your feedback or want to talk about your ideas further you can discuss it with your module tutor, the MA Convenor or your supervisor, during their Open Office Hours

Indicative reading

There are several single-volume translations, but particularly useful is that of Allen Mandelbaum (Everyman, 1995). Parallel translations will prove particularly useful, enabling comparisons with the Italian as well as keeping an eye on rhyme words, line endings, and the appearance of key words; the best is the translation and facing-text prepared by Robert M. Durling and Ronald M. Martinez, 3 vols (OUP, 1996-2011), which has superb notes; there is also the excellent facing translation of Robin Kirkpatrick, 3 vols (Penguin, 2006-2007).

Frequent reference will be made to Virgils Aeneid, Ovids Metamorphoses, and the Bible. Readers will find useful having a translation to hand of Dantes early work, La Vita nuova (The New Life), available in many translations (those of Barbara Reynolds and Mark Musa for example).

Secondary reading:

John A. Scott, Understanding Dante (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004); Stephen Bemrose, A New Life of Dante (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2000); Rachel Jacoff (ed), The Cambridge Companion to Dante, 2nd edn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Nick Havely, Dante (Malden, Mass.; Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007); Peter S. Hawkins, Dante: A Brief History (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006).

Further contextual bibliography:

John Larner, Italy in the Age of Dante and Petrarch, 1216-1380 (London: Longman, 1983); Lauro Martines, Power and Imagination: City-States in Renaissance Italy (London: Allen Lane, 1980); and on Dantes reception in English, see now: Nick Havely, Dantes British Public: Readers and Texts, from the Fourteenth Century to the Present (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.